Date of Award
Program or Major
Master of Arts
The Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church and arguably the largest and oldest organized religious institution in the world. Christians have been building, restructuring and growing their religious faith for two millennia, passing their traditions down from generation to generation. The Roman Catholic tradition can be viewed as the original centrally organized Christian church. Catholicism survived the fall of the Roman Empire, centuries of bloody religious wars, and the age of Enlightenment, which ushered in a steep rise of scientific progress and awareness. Despite this, the Catholic Church has managed to remain a spiritual leader among the various major global religions. The Church currently finds itself navigating a complex social landscape that relies heavily on digitally interactive computer networks to connect people all over the world. When most people think of the Catholic Church, they don’t think of technological innovation. However, the last decade has shown the world a seemingly different face of the Catholic Church.
The unorthodox election of Pope Francis and the rise of his media celebrity in recent years has been covered extensively by the global media, often portraying him as a revolutionary figure standing out amongst the backdrop of a much more conservative and outdated Church. This is more evident considering the rise of his media celebrity, amplified by his popularity on digital social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
Is Francis responsible for this updated (and digital) makeover? His enthusiasm and proficiency with new forms of social media are often at the heart of his coverage, helping drive the narrative that Francis’ leadership and technical prowess have been the impetus for the Church’s digital technological progress. This is true to an extent. Francis’ popularity with Catholics and non-Catholics alike gives the Church more legitimacy as it attempts to establish a more credible digital presence.
However, it can be argued that the Catholic Church has had a long history with new media adoption and utilization, long before the rise of the Internet. A re-examination of the Church’s historical views, negotiations and inevitable use of new forms of media technology is essential in forming a well-rounded understanding of the Church’s present-day relationship with secular digital and social communication technology. By building on the work of scholars who have studied the intersection between religion and new media technology, as well as the history of the Catholic Church, I aim to shed light on the Church’s “theory of communication,” which has been carefully cultivated since the days of the printing press. Specifically, I focus on the work of associate professor of Communication at Texas A&M University, Heidi Campbell, whose scholarship provides a framework for understanding how religious communities make sense of new forms of media.
In this thesis, I apply Campbell’s critical framework to the Catholic Church’s longstanding and complex relationship with new forms of media. In doing so, I use Campbell’s model to allow for a more thorough look into the Catholic Church’s willingness and apprehension regarding the adoption of new media technologies. I argue that, despite Francis’ seemingly radical adoption of and prowess on popular social media platforms, his actions and words regarding new media technology are closely aligned with past decisions made by even the most conservative of Popes, dating back to the days of the Gutenberg press. Further, I argue that the Church will eventually allow for the adoption of digitally immersive technologies (like virtual and mixed reality) for people to participate in important aspects of Church life, like the Holy Mass and observation of the Sacraments.
Bills, Andrew, "Virtual Catholicism" (2017). Master's Theses and Capstones. 933.